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“Practice your violin — 10 minutes minimum.”
This is what’s written in my planner every weekday for the next month (same as for the past month). Practice. Even though you aren’t preparing for anything specific. Even though you’re not good at it yet. Practice. Make the time.
As a beginner, it’s extremely important that I give myself this mandate. Otherwise, it won’t happen. That violin will stay in its case for months unplayed because for some reason, the idea of “practicing” sounds just as unappealing as preparing for weekly music lessons did in middle school (I am in my 20s).
It turns out writing isn’t much different than playing an instrument in this regard. If you want to do it better, you have to sit down and do it. A lot of the time, you’d just … rather not do it? But too bad. You have to. Seriously.
We often don’t think of time spent writing as “practice” the same way we do when a sports team is preparing for a game or a musician is getting ready for a performance. But they’re the exact same thing. Pretty much without fail, if you put in the time — and you make good use of that time — you will see steady improvement moving forward.
You have to treat your practice time like a “real” appointment or commitment. There are many aspiring writers who don’t like the idea of scheduling their writing time or making it part of their routine because they prefer to write “when they are feeling inspired.”
I get where this notion comes from. There are a lot of people who associate writing with good feelings and positive energy, and they don’t want to feel like they are “forcing” themselves to create things. But I’m going to tell you something you might not want to read (read it anyway): These people don’t make it very far in any area of publishing.
If I have a goal to play a certain song on the violin — which requires a much higher level of skill than I am capable of at this particular point in time — I’m never going to reach that goal if I only play my violin when I am “in the mood.” Honestly? If I only touched my violin when I was “inspired” to play it, I don’t think I would have made it past the first week. Starting something new is hard. So is January!
The only way to get past the initial “this is really hard and I don’t know how to make it less hard” hurdle is to keep working through it one note (or one word) at a time. Even if you only chip away at it for 15 minutes every day. This past week, I played my violin for 10 minutes max the six days I did. Not much. But it still added up to another hour of practice. I have one more hour of experience as a violinist than I did a week ago.
Writing works the exact same way. If you have a goal to write a novel — which might not be something you’re a skilled enough writer to accomplish YET — you’re never going to reach novel-writing-level experience if you only write “when you’re inspired” or “when you’re in the mood.”
You have to practice, even on the days you don’t want to. You have to put in not only the hours, but the work as well. You can’t just reread what you’ve already written, sneak over to someone else’s blog post about writing productivity, notice your time is up, and call it done. You actually have to write.
One of the most helpful strategies I’ve developed in my own creative process is to quite literally schedule “writing time” in like I would an appointment or another task. Sometimes it needs its own time block, sometimes it’s good enough if it’s “on the list.” But for me, it needs to be in that planner, staring up at me, waiting for me to follow through.
There have been days when I’ve had to turn down offers to do something fun because it’s Saturday night and I haven’t gotten my writing practice time in yet. You have to do what you have to do. You can’t shut yourself in a room and write all day every day, but you do need to treat writing as if it’s just as important as a meeting with your boss or a family dinner (if your parents are as ‘strict’ about those as mine are).
A writer must write even when they’d rather not. I know you know this. You’re pretty smart. You’re reading this blog post after all. But I’m not telling you this because I assume you aren’t aware. I’m telling you this because even I need to be reminded sometimes that I don’t feel like writing is, and always has been, and always will be, a terrible excuse for not writing.
I ran seven miles this morning. I wrote, like, 20,000 articles this week. I’m tired. Do you think I feel like writing this blog post right now … or pulling out my violin and putting in my practice time after I’m done here? Absolutely not. But I’m going to do it anyway. Why? Because the show must go on.
There may come a point in your writing life — fingers crossed! — that writing really does become work for you. As in, someone is actually paying you to write things. You’re not going to be able to put off writing when it’s your job. So why put off doing it now?
It’s much harder to have this mindset when you’re not there yet. I get that. Right now, you’re just trying to figure out how to Make Words Happen. Which is why I’ve put together a few tips for making the “ease in” to practicing regularly go a little more smoothly for you.
- Practice for 10 minutes. If 10 minutes is over and you don’t want to practice anymore, you don’t have to. But you might be surprised to discover that once 10 minutes have gone by, you no longer want to stop.
- Make writing the first thing you do in the morning. The nice thing about writing is that it’s quiet (uh, unlike some musical instruments). If you know you’re most likely to get your writing time in at the very start of your day, do it. You’re not going to disturb anyone — and then you won’t have to spend the entire day worrying about when you’re going to write.
- Make writing part of your bedtime ritual. This doesn’t work for me personally — I check out mentally at about 8pm most nights. But if you’d rather save your writing until the very end, do it. As long as you have some kind of incentive in place for making sure you actually get it done.
- Don’t spend your whole practice “messing around.” Spending the first five or so minutes writing “nonsense” is totally acceptable. But it does help if you have something more substantial to work on. Violin practice is much more productive when you’re working on a song instead of just playing random notes (unless that’s all you know how to do right now … eee). Work on a story. Work on an article. Something that’s easier to focus on that also has an endpoint (I like to call it an “I’m done” point).
Writing is hard — not just writing itself, but staying motivated to do it even when you don’t want to. Another thing that helps is not just making your practice time an “appointment,” but making that appointment a regular (not necessarily daily) part of your life.
Writers must build consistent practice time into their own schedules. As we’ve already discussed earlier in this series, writing every day isn’t necessary for success — but consistent practice is. And you pretty much have to decide for yourself what level of consistency you need in order to not only maintain your motivation, but also to showcase steady improvement over time.
The thing is, how often you practice and for how long you do it each time really isn’t the factor that will determine whether or not you achieve success as a writer. What’s most important is that you do practice, that you don’t go weeks or months without it, that you do everything in your power to make time for it even if it’s not as much time as another expert might recommend.
See, the thing about writing is that we all have to do it on our own time and have to work it into our own separate schedules. So I can’t tell you that you need to write for an hour every day because you might legitimately not have time for that, and that’s not fair to you. Yes, you have to make time. But you have to make time within reasonable limits determined by your own personal parameters.
How you incorporate writing into your schedule — when you do it, how often, and for how long — is completely up to you and your preferences. Some common examples:
- Write for 30 minutes five days a week.
- Write for 20 minutes before your first “big” task of the day.
- Write 500 words in one sitting.
- Write one page.
- Write one chapter.
The goal you set to accomplish with every writing session doesn’t matter, as long as it’s getting you a little bit closer to your objective every time you engage. Writing is not a race, it’s not about how quickly you get to the finish line. But you should always be in motion, always taking steps toward it, even if they’re small.
As always, something is better than nothing. Practice isn’t a waste of time. It just might be the most important thing you can do to secure a much brighter, more successful creative future.
Just starting out as a writer or returning from an extended hiatus? Let me know how I can help. Just drop a comment below with your questions/concerns — I am here to serve.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.